The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 1985, 311 Pages
Hi! We were going to hold off on this one for a few weeks but thought it would be fun to do it the same week as the new television series, which we are SO EXCITED ABOUT. The Handmaid’s Tale, like 1984, has been going through a surge of popularity with the current trends in American politics; in particular women’s rights, health care, anti-intellectualism, the rise of the religious right, and the manipulation of news and information. We like to think that like us, there are a lot of you reading this for the first time as well. Here is a tantalising synopsis:
“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…”
Margaret Atwood seems to be having a bit of a moment right now as well, beyond her regular CanLit ubiquity. Along with the Hulu TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale out this week, Sarah Polley is adapting Alias Grace into a film and HBO is working on a mini-series of the MaddAddam trilogy with Darren Aronofsky set to direct.
Róisín: Okay, so for some reason, I had never read Margaret Atwood until about 2 years ago? No idea why I avoided her for so long. I was under the impression my mom didn’t like her and I trusted my mom’s book views over anyone else’s (even Oprah!). According to my mom, this is not true and she is actually a semi-enthusiastic Atwood fan. ANYWAYS in the past two years I have read about ten of her books. Some I love, some I did not like at all, and some I feel pretty ambivalent towards. As for the author, she is probably one of the most publicly accessible in Canada right now, super active on Twitter and a prominent voice on many causes. However, she says a lot of things I find problematic (co-signing that letter to UBC about sexual harassment investigations) which really sucks when she consistently writes complex women characters and their experiences with violence of all different kinds.
Which brings me to The Handmaid’s Tale. This was my first time reading it and it was hard to believe that it is over 30 years old! There are so many small details to this novel that make it feel so new. Also, something I always come back to with Atwood is how differently she constructs each of her novels. The pacing of this book is so perfect and the tension ramps up so slowly at first that by the end you are left feeling like you have somehow been involved in Offred’s actions by the end of the book. At times the book feels intentionally disorienting and the flashbacks and breaks from Gilead feel jarring but in a way that makes you sit up and pay attention rather than jolting you out of the main story.
Kathleen: This was my very first Maggie Atwood novel! What a hecking delight. I was a bit embarrassed about not reading her before (especially when one of my best buds is OBSESSED) but knowing you only started two years ago makes me feel better! I’m going to start telling people I didn’t read her because of your mom, either.
The way this story unfolds is amazing, slowly letting the reader see Offred’s trauma, and the jumping, chaotic nature of the writing mirrors the chaos happening in the world. I agree that it does feel very modern, and not just because of current events. It’s just great, y’know?
Róisín: I think mood is key to this book. Gilead borrows from a very specific setting (mostly Harvard and its surrounding neighbourhoods in Cambridge, MA) which adds layers to the culture of this new republic of Puritanism; but I don’t know if you necessarily need to be familiar with this location to immerse yourself in its culture. Katy, any thoughts on that? Unrelated: do you think Margaret Atwood ever goes by Peggy or Marg?
Kathleen: Or Ret? I had no clue that this book was set in Harvard, I have never been to Harvard, and I know nothing about Harvard geography, so no, definitely not mandatory. The layout of the city, and how Offred describes her walks, does feel very specific and I wished I had a map a couple of times but it was totally fine. Also, since reading this I have seen the Penelopiad, which almost qualifies as reading a second Peggy Atwood. I might even tell Goodreads I’ve read it (jk Goodreads is no joke, everyone).
Also please enjoy these amazing alternate covers!
VERDICT: Should it be on the 30 before 30?
Róisín: Yep! But I also think there are a handful of other Atwood books that could be on here as well/instead.
Kathleen: Yes, absolutely!
NEXT WEEK’S BOOK: Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen